Note: This post was originally published during this student’s semester abroad at medium.com/@kathleenkelso.
By Kathleen Kelso
The skyline of Amman at dusk in a still moment of prayer. With the call to prayer echoing through the streets, one can only stop, listen, and admire the warmth and depth of a place too often shrouded in mystery.
She was upset over some fight with a boyfriend. We were huddled on the stairs outside the popular weekday watering hole. I reached out to reassure her, “no honey, you’re great! Don’t worr — ”
I froze as I felt unfamiliar hands slide around my waist, accompanied by a slurred, deep voice.
I whirled around to see the stupid grin of a guy from the bar, one I had briefly chatted with an hour before. “Don’t touch me, don’t f***ing touch me,” I said in English.
Though I could tell from his accent that Arabic was his first language, I was too taken aback to spit out one of the colorful Arabic curses I had carefully stored away during my cultural education in Jordan. He looked at me with his drunk, watery eyes before letting go and walking back inside.
I turned back to my teary-eyed friend and we continued our conversation. We talked and I consoled her a bit before taking her back inside to our other friends, all the while wondering what I was feeling. Ambivalence is a powerful thing, leaving me confused, conflicted, ashamed and upset. Why did I just turn back to my conversation? Why did my brain seem to tell me not to worry, that stuff like this is normal? It certainly didn’t feel normal. I was pissed.
We walked back in to the bar and melted into the thick swirl of music and cigarette smoke. Sliding between enthusiastic dancers turned into its own semi-aggressive tango as I yelled “excuseme”s in both Arabic and English. The evening was in full swing, but I was ready to leave and proceeded to gather up some male friends to share a cab. We made our departure, maneuvering between couples and waiters, all the while accompanied by a symphony of voices singing along to “Titanium” and the percussion of clinking glasses until I bumped into the bar manager.
“Perfect,” I thought, “I can tell him who the guy was that grabbed me and he will kick him out.”
I explained to the manager what had happened and pointed out the asshole in question, to which the manager replied, “Okay, I will talk to him.” Wrong answer.
Now, I think you as readers deserve some clarifying background information. I currently reside in Amman, Jordan. I am a student and a researcher here for a few months and overall, I really like Jordan. I am an American woman in my early 20s and Jordan has been really good to me. I live with a Jordanian family that is welcoming and kind, falafel makes up approximately 60% of my body, and I say “Enshallah,” probably 10 times each day.
Given the growing discourse against Arabs and the strength of stereotypes of the Arab man as misogynist and the Arab woman as greatly oppressed, I thought it was important to share this story. Why? Because the same thing happens in the United States, Western Europe, in high schools, on college campuses, and in your neighborhood. My biggest problems in society here are also my biggest problems in my U.S. society. Patriarchal systems that teach men to feel entitled to the bodies of others is not merely confined to the ‘barbaric’ ways of the Arabs. We all know that 1 in 5 women in the U.S. will experience sexual assault in some way. We know the extent to which women are blamed for these crimes and the social stigma they face, so why are we so eager to cast Arabs into the dirt when we have the same flaws?
Living in the Middle East, there are two conversations that I have gotten very used to having:
First, I am now quite accustomed to reassuring my friends and family of my safety in Jordan. I remind them that Arab does not mean terrorist and that despite commonly perpetuated narratives, people here live normal lives, have normal families, normal goals, and normal problems.
Secondly, I have learned to, both in Arabic and English, describe my positive feelings toward the Arab World. I am constantly explaining how I have come to understand with increasing clarity the rhythm and nature of life in the Jordan. I include this information because of the reason this topic comes up: most of the people I meet in Jordan assume that my beliefs about their community stem from a racist and anti-Muslim cultural education — looking at cultural trends and media in the West, they aren’t wrong — and that they need to convince me of their goodness, their humanity.
True, the Arab world faces some different problems than we face in the West or even in the United States. But we also face many of the same. We each have patriarchal societies that cause the oppression of women in large numbers. We each must constantly weigh safety and freedom when considering our political culture. We each are countries largely built of immigrants. We each struggle with maintaining our traditional values in the face of a swiftly changing world.
Well, so what? What do these similarities matter; this story is about the time some guy groped me, not my personal diatribe on Arab-Western relations. This is the problem I see, and have seen over and over again: we treat the same behaviors differently based on the culture in which we perceive them. For instance, an Arab man gropes an American woman, her friends and community react in outrage. However, when an American man gropes an American woman, her community reminds her that “boys will be boys.” Though this tide is turning as activism and advocacy for women gains traction, we cannot pretend that we do not behave differently towards the same instances based on the context in which we place them.
Our condemnation of the Arab man fits neatly into the long-established narrative of barbarianism in the Arab world, as opposed to the rhetoric of civility and poise with which we describe the West. If we as a human race truly wish to progress into the future of increasing peace, guaranteed human rights, promising politics, and shinier electronics, we have to find a way to restrain the ethnocentrism that is largely responsible for ignorance and, by extension, conflict. This is not an easy process, in fact it can be a painful one. It requires us to look at ourselves, at the communities we know and love, and criticize them. It requires hard conversations, sacrifices, honesty, and vulnerability.
But let’s call for these things, let’s call for them because each new family I meet should not feel the rush to explain that Islam is peaceful and that the patriarch does not beat his wife. Let’s call for them because lunch tables in school cafeterias should not have divisions along ethnic or religious lines. Let’s call for them because men and boys should be taught that women’s bodies belong to women, and women only. Let’s call for them because not to is barbaric, and because you don’t need money or power or fame to do so. Just you and just me can become just us, and we can do something big.